By Christien van den Brink
THE HAGUE, Feb. 28 (Xinhua) -- An old and empty church in Amsterdam has become home to some 100 failed asylum seekers who have lost the right for official shelter. Most of them are not allowed to stay in the Netherlands, but the Dutch government fails to send them back successfully. What has gone wrong with the Dutch return policy for asylum-seekers?
Monday evening, it's dinnertime at the church. The smell of rice-milk spreads through the enormous hall. Despite the wintery cold, the ambience is cozy and serene, and people barely interrupt their football match or shovel board games to get a bowl of steamy pudding.
Most of the refugees who temporarily live in the church are from African countries such as Cote d'ivoire, Guiney and Somalia. They have found shelter at the squatted church that is located in a quiet neighborhood in the west of Amsterdam. Volunteers provide them with food, medical assistance, water, electricity and entertainment.
This very mixed African community has one thing in common: they are not allowed to stay in the Netherlands, but they do not have the wish or opportunity to return to their countries.
According to Jasper Kuipers, deputy director of Vluchtelingenwerk, this group is only a small, visible fraction of the total amount of people living in illegality in the Netherlands.
"According to the latest statistics of the ministry of Justice, there are around 100,000 people living illegally in the Netherlands. We estimate that 45,000 people of this group have an asylum background. Around 10,000 voluntarily return to their country of origin, often meaning that they end up living in the streets in the Netherlands or somewhere else in Europe," Kuipers told Xinhua.
The so-called "deportation gap" -- the gap between the number of people who fail their asylum application and the number whose departure from the Netherlands is actually effected -- has been a hot political issue in many European countries because it is often seen as a proof that the policy of return is dysfunctional.
One of the members of the church is the Guinean Oumar. Due to personal reasons, Oumar fled his country in April 2012, arriving in the back of a ship in the port of Rotterdam a month later. After following the official 28-day asylum procedure, Oumar's application was rejected.
Like in many other European countries, failed asylum seekers can appeal against a rejection in the Netherlands, making an asylum procedure much longer than the official 28 days.
"The number of people making use of these legal procedures has increased tremendously throughout the years. The fact that this possibility for appeal exists, makes the process very long, resulting in a large amount of people waiting for legal status," said Professor Marlou Schrover, a migration expert at Leiden University.
Oumar too appealed against the decision to leave the Netherlands. While he is waiting for the verdict, he has lost his right to stay in an official asylum seekers center. But Oumar has never considered returning to his home country on a voluntary basis. "If it turns out that I will have to leave the Netherlands, I think I would prefer to die than going back to Guinea. I would even prefer to stay here illegally. Even if that would also be unsafe for me, it is as unsafe for me to return," Oumar told Xinhua.
In order to make sure people whose application or appeal has been denied return to their countries of origin, European law permits European countries to imprison failed asylum seekers like Oumar in detention centers.
But National Ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer thinks the major problem of this working method is the fact that many of these people don't have a passport, making it impossible to expel them to their country of origin.
The removal of asylum seekers requires the agreement of other states, specifically the state to which the individual is being returned. If, as is often the case, passports are unavailable, the deportee refuses to help or the country in question is reluctant, arranging a return may be difficult, time-consuming or even impossible.
"If the country of origin doesn't recognize failed asylum seekers as their own citizens, then there is little the Dutch government can do about that. But it is unfair to bring failed asylum seekers in a position of a long-term forced imprisonment," Brennikmeijer told Xinhua.
Dutch-speaking Younes, another inhabitant of the church, says he is from Sudan, but lacks the papers to proof it. He was detained five times for a period varying from weeks to nine months. Each time he was released and caught again.
"I have been in the Netherlands for nine years now. During all that time I have been here illegally," said Younes. "I can get caught by the police anytime. But they can't send me back either. I wish I could go back to Sudan, even though I know this would mean my life will be in danger. The life I have now is as horrible."
Last year, the National Ombudsman published a report highly critical of the situation of refugees in detention centers, leading to a mail correspondence between the State Secretary of Justice and the national ombudsman.
"The main findings in our report about the detention centers are that the circumstances under which people are imprisoned in those centers are quite depressing. The main reason why it is depressing is that the circumstances are isolating in the sense that you have very limited chances for social contact. There is very limited access to internet and telephone," Brennikmeijer said.
Until now, the Ministry of Justice has not implemented the recommendations of the National Ombudsman.
Meanwhile, Younes, Oumar and some 100 other failed asylum seekers still live in their church. Sometimes they are caught by the police, sometimes they go out on the streets to protest. But most of the time they just stay in the church and play music or watch soccer.
In April, they will have to leave the church and do not know where to go next. They all fear being imprisoned at the detention center. For many of them, it would not be the first time.